The pork-laden product at Pho 14
Salad or garden rolls, not to be confused by their deep-fried cousin, the spring roll, have always been one of my favorite Vietnamese appetizers. These gorgeous, transparent cylinders of rice paper come stuffed with a jungle of rice vermicelli, thin strips of pork, crispy lettuce, bright orange curls of shrimp, and light, refreshing leaves of mint, cilantro, and Thai basil (or some variation on the herbs). When dipped in a “peanut” sauce —- which, more accurately, should be a cooked-down hoisin sauce with chopped peanuts as a garnish —- garden rolls may be my definition of the perfect bite.
They’re meaty, nutty, cool, light, crunchy, fragrant, and gummy in the best way possible. Plus, you eat them with your hands, giving you the soft, tactile immediacy that’s often missing in utensil-driven food.
But the key to a great garden roll, for me at least, is balance. Each ingredient must know its place —- like a worker in a Socialist production collective —- and never try to dominate the others.
Lately, however, I’ve noticed that garden-roll makers at the new Vietnamese outlets in D.C. —- specifically Saigon Bistro near Dupont Circle and Pho 14 in Columbia Heights —- have taken to overstuffing their appetizers with pork. Far from giving you more meat for your money, this piggy indulgence merely disturbs the delicate balance of a garden roll. The dry, bland flavors of boiled (or maybe roasted) pork dominate in the most unpleasant way.
I brought my complaints to Hoa Lai, head chef at that Vietnamese institution now known just as Four Sisters, who told me something interesting. He says garden rolls are typically eaten as entrees in Vietnam. When a family has garden rolls for dinner, they will typically spread out the ingredients on a table, so that each person can build their own rice-wrapper meal. Frequently, Lai adds, family members will pile on the pork, to the detriment of the other ingredients in the roll. They’ll do so for one basic reason: Pork is cheaper than shrimp.
This Vietnamese household approach to garden rolls may be finding its way into the Vietnamese-American restaurant scene for the same reason: Pork is cheaper than shrimp. Then again, it could be that some Vietnamese cooks just prefer this approach because they grew up with it. Frankly, I tend to think it must be a cultural carryover from Vietnam, since I don’t see any less shrimp in my roll than usual —- just more pork.
Whatever the reason, I don’t like it. Maybe you do. Obviously some Vietnamese like it that way (though Lai himself prefers the more balanced garden roll and serves one of the best at Four Sisters). Perhaps the solution is to serve garden rolls like they do in Vietnam: as a spread of ingredients that we can use to build our own.
Personally, I’d really dig that.